Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Who Jesus Thought He Was

One might suppose that Jesus did not simply join John the Baptist's messianic group, but that also that John obviously saw in Jesus qualities of leadership. However truncated regarding the loss of John the Baptist's leadership, the baptism and the temptation come together in the narrative and the first question is what is the temptation about?

In Jesus's culture and mindset, his doubts about his mission are going to be transferred to Satan working on his mind - and that suggests the trial of doubt for the full term indicated by the symbolic 40 days. If the problem is one of self-identifying as the messiah, Jesus can work a miracle. But the scriptural path of the messiah (that is also that of the suffering servant) since Moses forbad the use of a miracle since water had come from a rock. So, to be faithful, there could be no proof. But then Satan was interested in Jesus and that in itself is a kind of proof - otherwise, why be tested?

So who did Jesus think he was? The notion that he was God comes only from some in the Christian community as his titles were escalated and translated more into the pagan worldview. He might well have thought, from the desert on, that he was the Son of Man, though one that needed to be transformed from heaven to be the full-blooded messianic figure and this might have been him or someone else. That was God's business, and on that even 1 John 4:12 put that no one has seen God. So Jesus wasn't God, quite obviously, and if he was a lot of people including the man himself missed this rather important point. But if the Son of Man has an enhanced meaning for Messiah, as well as a less enhanced meaning, the gospels use it in both the first person and third person, as if Jesus is referring on some occasions to another. That's the ambiguity at the heart of it all. We also have no information that Jesus ever stated that he was in the family line of David, which would make him both son of David and Lord of David if Messiah. Again, this suggests some sort of transformation. The Son of Man who undergoes suffering becomes the Son of Man who is that transformed figure, by God - a very human and difficult existence before the mighty version. It could be two Messiahs but they ought to be connected to be fully biblical.

What is so is that these ideas are utterly strange to us, and could be said to form a cultural delusion. But then all cultures are capable of creating meaning that a later culture finds to be a form of mass deception. What looks to us as nuts can be quite credible at the time, when many expected the last days and there were a number of Jesuses running around the place and either faded away or were knocked off by the authorites, as Jesus was, suffering a Roman crucifixion rather than a Jewish stoning (by accident or intent).

The issue is his faithfulness to his scriptures, regarded as literal and historical (in that myth and story were overwhelming and without our recent centuries of critical apparatus), and then a question of strategy. That was about healing and preaching the imminent Kingdom, not changing society itself but saying the poor had preference in such a coming Kingdom (and thus he healed to remove demons and make them sinless and ready), and then putting himself in harms way so that the suffering could be complete and the transformation - or events of that kind - take place.

And this is why, in my view, Jesus is interesting for his reverse ethics, but simply a man of his time. So what if a Paul, who never turned up at the relatively unknown man's crucifixion, idealised him into a salvation figure and made a bridge from Jews to Gentiles. Jesus is not a revelation into our line of history, but history is just a spiral of cultures and forms. Transcendence might be worth pursuing, to which Jesus pointed in his own culture's style and manner, but not Jesus himself who was as mistaken as anyone can be in such a supernaturalist culture.

See Campbell, Steuart (1996), The Rise and Fall of Jesus: the Ultimate Explanation for the Origin of Christianity, Edinburgh: Explicit Books, 94-100.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Don't know if you've heard of a recent book that's come out: 'Religion for Atheists' by Alain de Botton. A. N. Wilson has reviewed it for 'The Spectator' and Terry Eagleton for 'The Guardian', both available to read online. Would be interesting to know what a Unitarian thinks.